Book Review: Thai Foreign Policy 1932 - 1946
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
There are few English language books dealing with Thailand during the 1930s. Almost none look critically at the foreign policy of the nation during it's early democratic stages. Thai Foreign Policy 1932-1946 by Charivat Santaputra seeks to fill that gap.
In 1932 Siam (later Thailand) transformed overnight from absolutist monarchy to an embryonic democracy. The nation had spent nearly a century balancing between the aggressive colonial invasions of Britain and France, that by 1910 had taken over 80% of Siamese territory. In 1932, the new democratic government would have to balance the fear of foreign invasion by the colonial powers in response to the new government and so the tension of maintaining the status quo and charting new courses was begun, but without the traditional royal institutional support. The two colonial powers would soon be joined by a third (Japan), as Thailand sought to modernize and establish Thai ownership in it's own industry that was 99% foreign owned without upsetting those foreign powers. How Thailand balanced these conflicting forces is one of the topics Santaputra attempts to answer. The other topic which rose up later in the decade, was how maintain neutrality or chose a side from three aggressive colonial states on the even of WWII, and how to deal with France when it became a Nazi ally after it's defeat in June 1940. These tumultuous events in the years before and during WWII provide unique case studies in Southeast Asian diplomatic and historical studies.
"The main issue, once crisis of recognition was past, was the threat of foreign intervention."
Adapted from a thesis paper, Charivat Santaputra's book unfortunately displays rather large errors in it's presentation of the regional and international political situation. Despite the shortcomings in accurate details and narrow ideological bias, Thai Foreign Policy 1932-1946 does provide a good starting point for students wishing a broad brush overview of the subject, considering the lack of other foreign affairs focused material in English.
Published by the Thai Khadi Research Institute at Thammasat University in 1985, the book does an adequate version of providing a historical context of Siamese foreign policy during the absolutist monarchy years prior to the 1932 revolution. Placing the difficulties Siam had with the European occupying powers on all of it' borders, as well as the generational struggle to remain free from overt colonial control is important in understanding both the challenges and domestic paradigm that was the foundation for decisions made in the years prior to, during, and just after the Greater East Asian War (known as WWII in America, France, and Britain but not Thailand). Without a clear understanding of the diplomatic struggles, dead ends, and harsh capitulations in dealing with the Western powers historically, the events of 1932-1946 can not be understood clearly.
However, while it is admirable to include this in the 460+ page book, there are some notable errors which could be from lack of information at the time. For example, on page 97, when discussing the foreign policy during World War I; "Britain and France both wanted her to join on the side of the Allies, which she eventually did. The Siamese reaped their benefit to the fullest." provides not only an oversimplification, but presents a completely inaccurate picture of Siam's entry into the war, the Allies attitude, and the diplomatic gains from the outcome. For starters the Allies were ambivalent about the Siamese entry into the war, with British officials suck as Herbert Derring at the foreign office in London opposing Siamese entry into the war as it would mean increased French influence at the expense of the British. Even when the Siamese entered the war, they were not able to profit as much as believed due to the challenge on the German confiscated property by England as well as the higher costs of an expeditionary force than planned.
Unfortunately, World War I is not the only inaccuracy, the period in question; 1932-1947 is rife with errors, especially when dealing with international relations and internal social and political mechanisms that were at play during the period. The appeal by Phibunsongkhram to the US and UK prior to WWII in order to balance the ascendancy of the Japanese in neighboring Indochina is lost. As is the obvious fact that France in July of 1940 became Vichy France and a Nazi German ally. Thailand's war with France was against a Nazi German ally, not the traditional nation. Omitted to is the long process of negotiation that preceded the armed conflict, as well as the fact that the French did indeed rescind the initial diplomatic agreement and resorted to firing first in the escalation.
Thailand's Foreign Policy 1932-1947 should be read knowing that it contains such errors and more. Until another writer takes up the challenge of writing a focused foreign policy book during this period, it should be read adjacent to such excellent works as Stephen Hell's Siam and World War I an International History, his Siam and the League of Nations, Direk Jayanama's Siam and World War II, and Stephen Brailey and Craig Reynolds works to provide ready fact checks and balances.